Thursday, June 3, 2010

Clouds about the Fallen Sun

These are the Clouds

These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye:
The weak lay hand on what the strong has done,
Till that be tumbled that was lifted high
And discord follow upon unison,
And all things at one common level lie.
And therefore, friend, if your great race were run
And these things came, so much the more thereby
Have you made greatness your companion,
Although it be for children that you sigh:
These are the clouds about the fallen sun,
The majesty that shuts his burning eye.

(W. B. Yeats, "These are the Clouds," The Green Helmet and Other Poems, 1910)


I don't know why, but I found this poem particularly beautiful. Published in 1910 it anticipates the sense of brokenness and fallenness to permeate literature and philosophy after World War I (see, e.g., Woolf and Proust) and especially World War II (do I need to say more than Paul Celan?). Yet as an Irish poet, Yeats acutely sensed imposition from foreign powers, living in a country without self-governance but with great local ferment (to understate). But such historical circumstances may or may not have prompted this sense of brokenness, which, with all great and insightful works, speak beyond the moment of their writing.

First there is a poignancy in the opening couplet. There is an ominous tone with clouds gathering about the sun, as one slips into grayness and darkness when light should have been possible. There is not a full storm at play, but the gathering clouds simply shut out the light and who knows when the sun will shine through again, when the sun shall re-open his burning eye and bring light back to us. The repetition of the couplet at the end of the poem creates a sense of sadness, the end of poem, at first reading, shows no progress from the beginning. The clouds gather; the sun's eye is shut; there is no light. Its return is left for the future, but "although it be for children that you sigh" somberly indicates that the end of the darkness is not in sight for one's own and even for one's children's lifetimes. It seems endless.

I have difficulty reading the middle portion's tone. The weak lay hand on what the strong has done bringing it tumbling down. Is this the clouds? Is the "majesty" of the sun the equivalent of the strong? The clouds and weak then associated with discord and the majestic sun and strong associated with the previous (but now lost) unison? It seems so. Thus sun=strength=unity and clouds=weak=discord. It is with the next lines that difficulties really come in my mind. Since now that the strong's achievements have been brought down and the sun's majesty is shaded, "all things at one common level lie." This line seems to prompt eulogy: "And therefore, friend, if your great race were run / And these things came, so much the more thereby / Have you made greatness your companion." Vocatively addressing "friend," who has run his "great race" and these things came--these things being the breaking down of the strong and the hiding of the sun and the sowing of discord and the destruction of unity--his friend has made "greatness" is companion. How is this so? If the weak has brought down the strong and all things at common level lie, is it that the weak is now strong, the last shall now be first--or to be totally without hierarchy the weak now has access to greatness. The tumbling of the edifice of the strong that leads to temporary discord (and one whose end is not quite in sight) is also a moment of opportunity. In this second thought, the friend who has achieved greatness does not sigh from the grief of the children's grim future, but his current "sigh" represents the great effort and race that secures their future by gathering the clouds and forcing the majestic sun (cipher for monarchy?) to turn its scorching heat elsewhere. As such, while at first glance the gathering clouds seem somber and sad, it is rather hopeful at the same time if those clouds provide shade from debilitating heat and if WE are those clouds. Even though Yeats has given the exact same couplet at the beginning and end, by the end it has acquired a very different (even opposing) valuation and feeling.

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HaroldM22 said...
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